A leading Indian jewelry brand, well known for championing ‘social’ issues of women comes up with an ad campaign which depicts an inter-faith marriage between two communities. While it generates interest among many viewers, it also causes outrage among others, completely polarizing the social media. Soon, a hate campaign is spread, the ad is viciously trolled, and the company is forced to withdraw the ‘offending’ advertisement with a tame public apology. The business house loses crores of money in one stroke.
An elderly couple are eking out a living selling street food from a road-side kiosk. Their fragile business suffers a further setback during lockdown and they are soon reduced to penury. A good Samaritan posts their story in the social media and hundreds of people rally and offer them financial support. Curious people throng their eatery and soon the couple cannot cope with the crowds. there are people visiting them in droves, shooting videos, taking selfies. Sniffing profits, many start-ups and corporates offer them ‘sponsorship’. Soon the poor couple are seen wearing ridiculous T shirts with corporate logos and endorsing various consumer products, and posing to cameras with a ‘thumbs up’ sign, a gesture that is culturally alien to them.
A veteran Indian cricketing idol leading an Indian Premiere League as captain, recently happens to lose five consecutive matches. Soon, he starts getting trolled in the social media and a section of angry fans not only abuse him, but also threaten to rape his five year old daughter. A popular face on many TV adverts, and a dedicated player known for his exceptional courage and calm in the field, he moves his family to the safety of his farmhouse which is put under police protection.
India has always been a deeply stratified society with many social fault lines, but seething beneath its deceptive bovine calm and its smiling and hospitable people there appears to a molten magma of repressed violence that is just waiting to erupt like a volcano.
In the last few years there have been countless ‘instant-justice’ and mob-lynchings based entirely on social media rumors and they seem to continue unabated with increasing frequency and impunity. There are cases of ‘road-rage’ where a small brush on the road led to an argument and and soon a dozen armed people turned up with iron rods and sticks, and a person is beaten to death, sometimes in front of his own family.
Countless school children go through severe mental trauma due to ‘body shaming’ on the social media. There have been so many young girls who ended their lives because they were blackmailed that their private videos (often of sexual assault) would be shared on the social media. Innumerable communal riots costing many lives were sparked by social media posts.
Globally, ‘Democratic’ elections of entire nations have been hacked and manipulated blatantly by the social media. There has been a growing nexus between news media that runs on creating sensational and polarized content, the advertising and corporate business that thrives on viewership, and the State that is sustained by corporate lobbies, and retains its power by inducing suspicion, division and hatred of the ‘other’ amongst the masses.
In the era of Post-Truth, real news can no longer be distinguished from the fake. The social media, the digital media, and the news media are now the all-powerful genies that cannot be put back in the bottle. Recent history has shown that they now have the power to turn on their own masters.
One recalls a famous exchange between the two Roman senators Gracchus and Falco from the film “Gladiator (2000)”. They are discussing the games being revived by the emperor.
Fear and wonder, a powerful combination.
You really think people are going to be seduced by that?
I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, it’s the sand of the coliseum. He’ll bring them death — and they will love him for it.
The truth is that like the Roman mob, we too have let ourselves to be distracted from our miserable lives, and be seduced by the spectacle of shock and awe--of extreme adulation, hatred, violence, and death. It is just that the grand architectural arena of the Coliseum has been reduced and flattened to our HD TVs and smart phones.
The good Samaritan social media stories such as scenario 2 may be just exceptions of mob showing mercy that prove the rule of mob indulging in hatred and violence. One wishes there were more such instances. However, one cannot help wondering if such ‘media-hyped’ stories of sudden flashes of generosity truly benefit the recipients in the long run. The social media has a notoriously short-lived collective attention spans and memory.
Whether in the stands of coliseum or the social media of today, it seems we can only exercise two choices. It is either thumbs up or thumbs down. If you are not ‘for’ you are ‘against’.
About 2500 years since the Roman civilization, many mind-boggling technological advancements later, and despite harping endlessly about democracy, dignity, individuality, and human rights, we have not evolved very far as humans.
We are still a mob. And those who control the mob still rule Rome.